ST. PETERSBURG — Shortstop Yunel Escobar is expected to be activated off the disabled list and popped right back into the lineup tonight as the Rays open a significant series with the Blue Jays.
Typically, getting a frontline player at a key position back from injury would be good news.
But in this case, maybe not.
Given how inconsistent Escobar was playing before he was sidelined June 24 with a sore right shoulder, how well Ben Zobrist has performed in his place, and how much the Rays have won without Escobar (11-4), there are some — Rays people among them — not necessarily welcoming him back.
"I understand that sentiment, but Escobar is our shortstop, and he's going to be out there and we'll make the adjustments after that," manager Joe Maddon said. "I'm really looking forward to him playing at that high level we saw last year."
That's the key. The 2013 Escobar was a tremendous acquisition, flashing elite-level glove work as Tampa Bay ranked among the game's top defenses, adding a decent bat and showing no signs of the soiled reputation that developed in Atlanta and Toronto.
"Yuni last year, I thought, was the Gold Glove shortstop," Maddon said. "He was the glue to the whole defense, and that's why we got him. We felt he could bring the whole thing together, and he did."
But this season — one in which Escobar, 31, early on signed a two-year contract extension guaranteeing him $13 million — not so much.
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By any measure, Escobar's defense has dropped off considerably, ranking among the worst in the majors.
Last year, he made seven errors total, handling 610 chances in 1,320 innings. This year, he already has eight in less than half as many chances (255 over 664⅔ innings).
Last year, Escobar was credited with four defensive runs saved in a Baseball Info Solutions calculation based on plays made with the average player at zero; this season Escobar is a major-league low minus-17.
And last year he was calculated to have an ultimate zone rating of 10.7, this season he is at minus-11, again last in the majors, worse than Derek Jeter, who some joke is already playing like the statue the Yankees will one day build.
In breaking down Escobar's dropoff, there have been two obvious issues: He is having more trouble glove-side than backhand, and he is turning fewer double plays, which might have do with the shoulder issue (and in part, oddly, because Zobrist had been shaky at second).
"If there's any decline, it would be going toward the middle of the field," Maddon said. "It might be just a mechanical thing, prepitch, that we have to have a discussion on or look at, but other than that I really don't know. The arm looks the same; before he went on the DL he threw some balls I had not seen him throw before, but hopefully that's going to be fine."
The Rays can make some adjustments in positioning to compensate for Escobar's lack of range. And the shoulder is supposedly better, Escobar playing 1½ games (14 innings) for advanced Class A Charlotte on rehab Tuesday-Wednesday, making three short-to-first throws.
Escobar wasn't missed much as Zobrist — who came up as a shortstop and still considers it his most comfortable position — played exceptionally well. And Zobrist ranks among the leaders in some of those same statistical categories where Escobar craters.
And, at the same time, Logan Forsythe got regular playing time at second and became one of the Rays' top hitters over the past few weeks.
"I think Zo's been tremendous for us," starter Alex Cobb said. "The chemistry between him and Forsythe has been great. They've been turning a lot of good double plays, making all the routine plays and making some of the tough plays look routine. It's been huge for us to have him step in and fill the gap."
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Third baseman Evan Longoria said they are both good in their own ways.
"Individually they both bring something different and special to the position," Longoria said. "Yuni has one of the best arms I've ever seen, so when he gets to a ball, it's an out most of the time. Zo runs a little better and has a little bit more lateral movement and range.
"I think it's our job, Joe and (coach Tom) Foley, whoever's job is managing the infield, to position Yuni a little bit differently than Zo. Zo has played well, he has filled in the gap well, but I think with Yuni healthy and him in the lineup, he adds another dimension and a little bit more stability in the lineup. And I think we'll be happy to have him back."
Maddon said he welcomes not only Escobar's defense but also his bat — "He might be our best hitter against left-handed pitchers right now." — and the energy Escobar usually brings. Though, again, unlike last season, there have been several times when Escobar has not run hard on the bases, earning at least one talking-to.
Escobar's return will require some adjustments to the lineup, as Zobrist will go back to splitting time between second base and the outfield, which will reduce playing time for Forsythe, and outfielders Brandon Guyer, Kevin Kiermaier (against lefties) and Matt Joyce.
"If Yuni comes back and plays like he did last year," Maddon said, "that can be a big plus for us."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.